Why You Shouldn't Join the Peace Corps

(Back to the Home Page.)

Greetings! You are visitor 40088 since September 13, 1998.

The rest of this website, in many ways, come across like a huge advertisement for the Peace Corps... and I've always had mixed feelings about that fact. For some, the Peace Corps is a wonderful and memorable experience. But for others, it is a disaster. In fact, about a third of all Peace Corps volunteers return to the United States before their terms are up. In some cases, these early terminations are involuntary: they may be due to illness, or an accident. But most are unhappy volunteers who quit.

And for some of those who do serve out their entire terms, the return to the United States can be very difficult. These difficulties don't necessarily argue against the wisdom of their decision to join the Peace Corps in the first place, but you should be prepared.

Here, then, are three reasons why you shouldn't join the Peace Corps. My goal in assembling this list is not to discourage everyone from joining. Rather, I want anyone who does join to go in with his or her eyes wide open.

Reason Number One: The Peace Corps is not a career.

I sometimes get emails from people who seem to think of joining the Peace Corps as their long term goal in life. I find this somewhat distressing. The Peace Corps may be a temporary solution to the problem of what to do with your life, but it is not (with rare exception) a permanent one. When your two years are up, you're back in the United States, looking for a job, just like you would have been if you had not joined. Only you are two years older, and while many of the friends you left behind will be somewhat established, you may find yourself back home with mom and dad.

Some volunteers are able to parlay their experience into careers. Those working as teachers, for example, may be able to get teaching jobs in the United States (although if you have visions of working as a teacher of English to foreign students, you should be aware that many of these jobs pay very poorly in the United States, and offer little in the way of benefits.) I know that some volunteers who work in the former Communist states or in Latin America have been able to use their language and (if applicable) business experience to get corporate jobs. You may also have an advantage in getting a job with the U.S. government as well. Perhaps your best option will be to go immediately to a good graduate school.... and your Peace Corps experience may well make you a more attractive candidate. If this is your plan, you'll save a year of time and quite a bit of dislocation blues if you apply during your second year of service, rather than waiting until you return home. (The U.S. can seem awfully distant while you are serving, but the reality of returning is almost inevitable.)

One approach to combining Peace Corps service with furthering your education that might make a lot of sense is the Peace Corps Master's International Program. I have no direct experience with this program, and would welcome comments from those who do. But from what I gather about it, reading its description on the Peace Corps web site, it looks as though it might be an excellent way of both enhancing your Peace Corps experience and preparing you for a career on your return to the US.

Reason Number Two: You Might Get Sick

Actually, you probably will get sick, especially if you got to a tropical climate. Or you might get involved in some kind of accident, especially one that is transportation related. If you have a motorcycle, as do some volunteers, it is almost inevitable that you will return with, at least, a scar on your leg. (Are volunteers still allowed motorcycles? They may now be banned because of the high number of accidents PCVs got into.)

Getting sick for most is just a part of the Peace Corps experience, but that doesn't make it any less unpleasant. Be prepared.

Reason Number Three: You Might Not Have Much to Do:

Prospective volunteers often imagine themselves coordinating dozens of projects that have a measurable impact on the lives of the grateful locals, and who knows, maybe some do. But an awful lot of volunteers discover that their assignment is ill-conceived, or the locals aren't really interested in being taught (for example) how to build fish ponds by a Comparitive Literature major from Ohio State. One reason why many PCVs say that they got as much or more from the Peace Corps as they gave is that, somewhat to their surprise, they discovered that they didn't really have all that much opportunity to give.

Teaching jobs can in a sense be the easiest, because you have a set schedule and (hopefully) a group of eager students. But even teachers are sometimes disillusioned to find that while the average (not marginal) cost of maintaining a Peace Corps on site is something like $35,000 a year, there are a number of skilled locals who would love to have their jobs for a tenth that amount.

I recently received a letter from a prospective PCV who had visited this page, and was disturbed by it. Here is his letter (without his name), and my reponse:


Hi! I have been considering becoming a PCV after graduation, but after reading your Peace Corps website, I must say that it has aroused more than a few questions.

First, you said that many times the PCVs find that there is not much to do (in terms of serving the community), or that the locals are not interested in being taught certain skills, etc. Could you elaborate on this? I don't particularly want to devote two years of my life to bureacratic waste.

Second, you said that it costs about $35,000 a year to maintain each volunteer on-site. How did you arrive at this number?

Third, what is an average stipend during service? The information that I have received indicated that we would receive enough to live on, and nothing more. I must confess that the absence of any hard numbers is something of a source of anxiety for me, as it conjures up images of mind-numbing poverty.

Fourth, you said something about the presence of skilled locals that would gladly accept the jobs filled by PCVs for 10% of the cost of a PCV. Please elaborate, because this is a little disconcerting, too. In the absence of explanatory circumstances, why not just fund local efforts?

Thank you in advance for your response.

And here is my response:

For information on volunteers who find they don't have a meaningful assignment, I would suggest several sources. First, read Lisa Walker's excellent on-line Peace Corps memoir at http://whyy.org/edison/office/lisa/. It is about as much text as a several hundred page book, so don't expect to do it in one sitting. If you would like, she will email you a version you can save on your hard-drive so that you don't have to tie up the phone line every time you are reading it.

Another good source, now somewhat dated, but worth reading, is a GAO report on the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe, issued in December 1994. It can be found at http://pages.prodigy.com/goto/fofm11ga.htm.

I derive my $35,000 per volunteer per year number by dividing the Peace Corps' 1998 budget of $226 million by its current number of volunteers, which is 6,500. See http://www.peacecorps.gov/about/facts/index.html.

The stipend depends on the country you are assigned to. Most of the time it is more than adequate, at least in my experience. This may to some extent be affected by fluctuations in the local currency, as PCVs are not paid in dollars, but in the currency of the country they are sent to.

Would you be replacing a local who could do the job at a 1/10 of the cost? Depends on your skills, and the country to which you are being sent. Many developing nations have a lot of well-educated but unemployed people, which is why so many of them wind up driving cabs in the US.

Your questions are good ones. If you are aggressive about resolving them and still choose to join the Peace Corps, your experience may be a much better one. Good luck. - JDM

Here's another letter, typical of the concerns some volunteers have, and my typical response:

Hello, I just visited your Peace Corps Crossroads sight. I am seriously considering joining the Peace Corps. My question is one that goes further than the logistics. I have concerns about the credibility of the Peace Corps oversees. Why would the US government pay $241 million just to “help others help themselves.” I am a believer in you don't get something for nothing. What exactly does the government get? Allies, business, a good name? Do you know where I could find someone to address these questions? They might be grouped into the overarching problem some volunteers have with "What is development and what am I really trying to accomplish here?" I would appreciate your response....

My response to this letter was:

The United States spends a lot on foreign aid, for a wide variety of reasons, some altruistic, some not. I wouldn't worry too much about it. As for the question "What is development", some good examples would be teaching a third world farmer how to increase his crop yields so that he could not only feed his kids but be able to send them to school.... or show a woman's cooperative how to do double entry bookkeeping so that they can qualify for a loan.... or help an Eastern European hospital set up a computerized medical records database, so that they won't give someone a medicine to which she has a fatal alergy....

If you learn a real skill (and I'm not talking policy analysis here, or semiotics, or an understanding of the theories of Noam Chomski) you may be able to measurably help people of the third world improve their lives. Don't worry about the Peace Corps bureaucracy; once you're over there, they will pretty much leave you alone. Worry instead about putting your time in school to use in a manner that will help out the struggling people of the third world while you're over there, and yourself too, after you get back.

Good luck, and keep in touch. - JDM

To be continued.... Have any comments you'd like to add? Please let me know.